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Patrick Hruby

Stupid Human Tricks

The Atlantic Sports Roundtable on the absurdity of the NFL Combine

The Atlantic online

Can you run fast in a straight line? Jump high from a standstill position? More importantly, do you like girls? In this week's Atlantic Sports Roundtable, we question the questions being asked at the NFL Scouting Combine, the league's annual dog-and-pony show:

Jake Simpson: ... The latest pre-draft absurdity is the pointed, if not patently offensive, questions about sexual behavior and orientation that many prospects have reported being asked during interviews. The queries are most likely a reaction to the Manti Te'o story and the potential that some players may be hiding their homosexuality from the world, and by extension their potential future employers in the NFL. Colorado tight end Nick Kasa said Tuesday that at least one team asked him, among other things, whether he has a girlfriend and whether he likes girls.

If Kasa's allegation is true, I don't even know where to begin haranguing. First off, the question could be illegal depending on the state privacy laws of the unnamed team that talked to Kasa. Second, what business it is of an NFL team whether a prospect is heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, or has illicit sex with space aliens? A manager at Wal-Mart doesn't have the right to ask that question in many states, and if a corporation did that at all there would be a huge (and justifiable) backlash from the public. Finally, why in God's name would an NFL team think a prospective draft pick would tell the truth even if he were gay? There's a reason that there are "no gay people" in the NFL despite the fact that between two and 10 percent of the population identify as homosexual (depending on who you ask). It's that there are gay men in the league, but the stigma against homosexuality in the NFL is so obvious and pervasive that they know better than to speak up. Questions like the ones Kasa was allegedly asked only make that stigma more obvious and better display the absurdity that is the combine ...

Patrick Hruby: ... a pro football team asking a potential draftee about his sexual preferences is inarguably stupid. Probably discriminatory. Possibly illegal. From a civil-rights standpoint—not to mention basic human dignity and respect—it's appalling. Yet all of that said, it's also ... not surprising. The entire NFL scouting combine—the poking, the prodding, the bench pressing, the "Bod Pod," the personality evaluation questionnaires, the procession of muscular young men in form-fitting underwear parading around for old guys who un-ironically ask questions such as do you like girls?—is a giant exercise in cover-your-ass pretend science, in collecting a bunch of information that may or may not have a whit of value when it comes to predicting football performance.

Why do I call it "pretend science?" Because in real science, experiments can be repeated to test and retest hypotheses and confirm or refute conclusions. Drop an apple from a tree; it falls. Drop the same apple from the same tree under the same conditions; it will fall the same way. Congratulations: Add in some math to describe what you can observe and measure, and you're on your way to understanding gravity. Thanks, Isaac Newton! The NFL combine is different. Former NFL lineman Mike Mamula reportedly scored a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic intelligence test. He was a complete bust. Former quarterback Dan Marino reportedly scored a 15. He's a Hall of Famer. These aren't anomalies; there are many, many, many great players who posted lousy Wonderlic scores. What does that tell you? It tells you that the test reliably predicts nothing when it comes to on-field success—that it produces noise, not signals—and that in employing the test for decades, NFL teams might be the ones who need an intelligence screen ...

Hampton Stevens: ... what's really remarkable is that the interview itself can be an engine for stirring debate. Some NFL player-personnel guy happens to ask a prospect an inappropriate question about sex. Bam! Suddenly it's time for the country to have a conversation about gay athletes in sports. Wow. In other words, the NFL setting the agenda as always.

There's more combine to come as well. According to the NFL Network, plans are underway to give the combine a reality TV-based format. Those 40-yard dashes you guys hate? They could be turned into races between draft prospects, as they compete at regional combines for a spot at the big event in Indy.

The show wouldn't only be about vertical leaps, either. A TV program about the combine that told real stories about young men trying to live their pro football dreams could make for incredibly compelling stuff. Who knows, one day the show might even have an openly gay player trying to make the league? And wouldn't that spark a little debate? Guess what? I'd watch. Last year's record combine viewership of 6.51 million would probably watch with me. And, don't even lie, you guys would be watching too ...

Read the full article at The Atlantic online